WASHINGTON — In one of the signature moments of his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama vowed that if Congress failed to act on energy and climate change, he would use his executive powers to do so.
Yet even as he was making this pledge, the White House was blocking several Department of Energy regulations to require that appliances, lighting, and buildings use less energy and create less global-warming pollution.
The White House has bypassed a 1993 executive order that in most instances demands that it act on proposed regulations within 90 days and has spent as long as two years reviewing some of the energy efficiency rules.
The rules would require that refrigerators, light bulbs, and electrical equipment use less energy, much as the Obama administration required automakers to commit to make more energy-efficient cars in its first term.
The blocking of the rules, part of a broader slowdown of environmental actions by the administration in the past two years, has frustrated congressional Democrats and environmental advocates. Regulatory review times at the White House Office of Management and Budget are now the longest in 20 years, having risen sharply since 2011.
“The president has pledged if Congress won’t act on climate change, he will,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who along with five other Democrats wrote to the administration’s new budget director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, last week to complain about the regulatory delays. “If he is going to keep that promise, he’s going to have to have OMB move with a lot more clarity and alacrity,” Whitehouse added, using an abbreviation for the budget office.
The slowdown stems from a combination of factors, including high-level vacancies and election-year politics. Analysts and former administration officials said that the White House, sensitive to GOP charges that it was threatening the economy by pushing out dozens of so-called job-killing regulations, reined in the process last year, leaving many major rules awaiting action for months beyond legal deadlines.
Some administration officials are also concerned that regulations have the potential to do more harm than good.
“If we make refrigerators lousy, that’s a big problem,” Cass R. Sunstein wrote in “Simpler: The Future of Government,” a book about his time running the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a unit of the budget office responsible for reviewing regulations.
The administration’s concerns on the cost of rules are especially acute at a time when unemployment remains high.
“The administration seeks to maintain a balance between our obligation to protect the health, welfare, and safety of Americans and our commitment to promoting economic growth, job creation, competitiveness, and innovation,” Burwell wrote in response to Whitehouse.